Are we overburdening our toddlers?

Gayatri Vinayak

As a mother of a 2.5 year old boy, the most common question that I frequently encounter is which school I am planning to put my son in. And, when I answer, ‘I haven’t decided yet’, or ‘I’ll continue with his play group,’ I am usually met with reactions that range from ‘Why? Your child won’t get admission in any decent school if you don’t put him immediately in to a big one’, to ‘If he doesn’t join nursery in a big school now, he won’t ever be able to adjust,’ or ‘If you don’t put him in a big school now, later on you’ll have to pay a hefty donation!’

To be honest, I am guilty of sending my child to play group from the age of two – as a freelance writer there is very limited work that can be done with an extremely active toddler at home, hence the necessity – and this is also the case with most parents. But, I had put him in a play group where the focus was more on playing and social interaction, than on getting his ABCs sorted. He spent two hours there, made some friends and that was the extent to which I bothered. And yes, my child did pick up some alphabets on the way, but he still confuses his red with his blue colour – something I don’t worry about. So, does that make me a lesser mother? Well, by the look that I, and the handful of other parents who haven’t started scouting for schools for their toddlers, keep getting from many other parents, we may just be jeopardising their futures by not worrying so much about their academics.

In India, most children are packed off to big schools when they are barely three – they get involved in structured work, leaving no time for imagination. These children are then burdened with books and bags, and homework starts before the poor child even begins to understand what they are going through. Also, except for a few, most of these schools share their pre-primary sections with the older sections, hence much of the infrastructure is made for the older students. This can be quite overwhelming and difficult for the tiny ones. A parent had even complained once about how the toilets in their school were designed for much bigger children.

Unfortunately, the general perception of intelligence in India is equated with the child being able to recite the alphabets and numbers by the age of 2.5. During Parent Teacher Meetings, for example, parents are shown progress reports of how their child has performed throughout the year – the problem areas and areas of improvement. Unfortunately, with such ratings, comparisons start early on. A friend was quite worried that her barely three-year-old son was not able to identify all the letters – however, what added on to her misery was the teacher comparing the child with others who were able to do so. What both the teacher and the parent missed to realise was that the other children were months elder, an aspect that makes a lot of difference in the early years – hence mentally more capable of understanding concepts.

In addition, the mid-year changes that the government makes to the education system add to the worries. While the Department of Education, Government of Maharashtra, had issued a GR in January 2015 ordering that all students entering class 1 must complete six years of age before July 31st of the academic year, the department issued another directive in January 2017, extending the cut-off date to September 31. This caused much confusion among schools and parents, and while some schools adopted the new cut off dates, others did not. This also led to some students, who were not enrolled in nursery last year because they did not meet the cut off, becoming eligible for junior kindergarten this year – hence skipping one entire year. Not only does this make them way younger than the others in their class – they also miss out on many of the concepts taught in nursery – hence leading to confusion and learning problems.

Which was why, when I recently read a report quoting Danish studies stating that Danish kids who postponed kindergarten for up to one year had higher levels of self-control than those who didn’t, I felt relieved. The students also displayed reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child of 11 years. Also, according to the study, a major benefits of delaying a child’s entry into formal school is that it gives more time for the child to indulge in more of unstructured play – hence, boosting the their imagination.

The Finnish mode of schooling and why it helps

Educationists the world over have commended Finland for its schooling system. The small Nordic country started to overhaul its education system more than 40 years ago, when it started to work on its economic plan. But, it was only after it emerged as one of the toppers of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a program that tests the reading, math and science literacy of 15-year-olds in developed nations, every three years, that the country, and the world, woke up to the realisation that Finland’s radical changes were actually boosting the country’s education system.

So, what were these dramatic overhauls that Finland made? For one, it moved the school enrollment minimum age to 7. The theory behind this was that children learn more during the initial years, exploring on their own, than through structured education. And, at the age of seven, when the child is ready to focus, they are enrolled in school. Students also spend less time in school, and school timings are typically from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. This also ensures that children have more time to catch up on their sleep, and hence are not too tired. They also have a much lower student to teacher ratio of 20:1, as opposed to Indian schools, where the ratio, right from primary, and pre-primary in some cases, is much more than that. This also means that children receive additional help during the first years of their school, and, do not have to attend any other classes for assistance. And, to add to that, children are not subjected to exams until they are well into their teens.

Happy children make happy citizens – Finland has constantly been ranked among the top 10 happiest countries – at number 5. The country also has the happiest students in the world, according to findings published by the US based – Centre for Teaching Quality Collaboratory. While there is no definitive such scale for Indian students, the increasing number of suicide cases speak volumes for the state of mind of our children.

While we may not be able to emulate Finland’s achievements and practices for various reasons, what we can do as parents and teachers, is try to delay entry into school by at least a year, where possible, and then focus more on providing play based activities and imparting social skills, rather than just studies, in the initial few years.